Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Stacks - The Other Side of Desire

The Other Side of Desire
by Daniel Bergner
Ecco, 2009

This book presents four true profiles of people who have sexual desires that are considered unusual. The first is Jacob, who is a Midwestern businessman with a severe foot fetish. He can’t derive sexual pleasure from anything besides a woman’s feet but he is ashamed of his fetish, can’t conceive of admitting it to his wife, and has fallen into the hands of a quack psychiatrist who has treated him with chemical castration. This hasn’t knocked out the fetish however, and he occasionally considers suicide for relief. The second profile is of the Baroness, a designer who creates latex clothing in her East Village boutique, staffed entirely by her submissives. The Baroness is a sadist who is in a vanilla and sexually monogamous marriage but does extreme BDSM play with others on the side and is a fixture in the NYC kink community. She is very well adjusted in her alternative lifestyle and sees her sadism as a service she provides to help masochists discover themselves. The third profile is of Roy, a man with apparently normal sexual appetites who suddenly discovered an attraction to young girls and was arrested for making a pass at his step-daughter’s friend. This chapter goes into recent research into the causes of pedophilia and points out that a great many men have a desire for the young but know better than to act on it. The fourth profile is of Laura and Ron Parisi. She becomes a double amputee after being hit by a car. He is an advertising photographer who has both an emotional and physical attraction to disabled women and is making a photo series of them based partly on the work of surrealist artist Hans Bellmer. The two meet during this project and end up getting married.

One criticism I've heard of this book from members of sexual minorities is that it's written for vanilla people who want to satisfy their curiosity. This is true, as far as it goes, but I don't think it's a strike against the book. Berger treats his subjects with compassion and tries valiantly to help outsiders understand their unusual sexual tastes. He never sensationalizes (although to book cover does with the subtitle, "four journeys into the far realms of lust and longing"). We never get the impression that he's the emcee at a freak show. His sympathy for Jacob, the foot fetishist, is clear, as is his hostility to the psychiatrist who is making Jacob's life so miserable by feeding his shame. The Baroness also comes off well, and I think any reader that didn't come to the book hostile to BDSM will respect her for her ability to create a community around herself (not to mention to maintain her marriage to a vanilla man). And Berger is at his best during the portion of the book about Ron, the amputee fetishist. As I read Berger's poetic descriptions of Bellmer's strange artwork and Ron's photography, I actually felt my perceptions changing and started to see a strange beauty in something I might have normally considered unsightly.

The third section, about Roy, the pedophile, is the most disturbing part of the book, and it's where I have the most trouble affixing my stamp of approval. Pedophilia is such a taboo and the act of abusing children or teens is such a disgusting one that it is difficult to look at pedophiles as tortured, pitiable men. Berger's writing is strong enough that it makes the reader feel this way, on occasion. It's an extremely uncomfortable feeling to have. It's difficult not to feel that even a hint of pity for a pedophile, even one who suffers silently and never abuses a child, makes us complicit in their evil behavior. Berger's ability to make us feel something for them to a testament to his writing. However, unlike the new perspective he offered me in the amputee section, I'm not sure I want to thank him for the new insight in this case. This is one area where I would sort of prefer to keep my mind closed and impermeable.

I've heard kinky folk criticize this book because they're being lumped in with pedophiles and I would wager that foot and amputee fetishists feel the way (I'm not acquainted with any). I sympathize with that. To compare their consensual and harmless behavior with the sexual exploitation of children is to conflate transgressive behavior with something that is unethical and wrong. And yet Berger may have a point. All through pedophile section he is trying to tell us that pedophiles aren't that unusual, and that the main difference between normal men and men like Roy, who attempt to have sex with young girls, isn't so much the lack of attraction to a girl below the age of consent as the willingness to act on these feelings. After all, hasn't Roy been able to sustain regular, vanilla, heterosexual relationships? Didn't his aberrant behavior surface only after years of apparently normal sexuality? Even he was unaware that he had any particular inclination towards the young. Berger seems to be leading us towards the conclusion that Roy, out of all of the book's subjects, is the most normal.

Whether or not you enjoy this book is going to depend on your reaction to the pedophilia section. Do you enjoy being challenged with these sort of ideas? Are you okay with being made extremely uncomfortable by some of the conclusions they lead you to? Do you want to reexamine your beliefs on this subject? If the answer is yes, there's no question that you'll love this book. If not, steer clear of the third section and you'll be on safe -- and less challenging -- territory. The book will be pleasant and won't create any strong reaction. For my part, as uncomfortable as it was I was glad I read it. Frequently the ideas that are the least comfortable are the ones most worth thinking about.

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